Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Into the Abyss: Adapting "Madame Bovary"

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Into the Abyss: Adapting "Madame Bovary"

Article excerpt

Part of the price Flaubert paid for celebrity was a string of requests from Paris theaters "eager to stage Madame Bovary" and cash in on the novelist's succes de scandale. Biographer Geoffrey Wall reports that one theater merely wanted to use the title, while retaining the freedom to devise its own story and script. Two other "unofficial versions" reached the variety stage. "One of them sang comic songs and the other one gossiped about her love affairs. Flaubert saw them both--and was not amused." Adaptation of his work into any other medium could make the novelist "frantic": "It was hardly worth the trouble using so much art to leave everything vague," he wrote in reaction to the prospect of publishing Salammbo with illustrations, "if some clod is going to come along and destroy my dream with his stupid precision." (1)

As a longtime practitioner of an art of stupid precision, I find myself wondering along with Flaubert why I ever wanted to disturb the vagueness of his dream. The first time I tried was in the summer of 1987, when sixteen student actors at Northwestern University joined me in a project of insane-sounding ambition and complexity: in seven short weeks we staged as much of Flaubert's Madame Bovary as we could squeeze into a serial of three two-and-a-half-hour episodes. The following summer, I brought a three-hour reduction of this script to a small playhouse on Forty-second Street in Manhattan, for production by a fledgling company of Equity actors. The New York Times reviewer found the parts better than the whole. The narrated play was "an amusing intellectual exercise, but only up to a point": "when the story turns tragic it merely leaves us frustrated and puzzled." Inevitably, the reviewer explained his dissatisfaction with the play through an exercise in "fidelity criticism" (as film scholars call it), by offering a short list of the novel's pleasures that defy translation to another medium. (2)

Perhaps I should have learned my lesson and stopped there. For another two decades, however, the novel accompanied me into performance classrooms, where it provided the basis for student adaptations of various lengths and degrees of irreverence. Adapting Madame Bovary became a project without limits. In diverse settings, I practiced a continual, probably unfinalizable rewriting upon pastiche translations of this astonishing old book. My most recent revision took the form of a new three-hour script, which I produced on Northwestern's campus in the winter of 2006.

My frequent return to the novel can be viewed as a desire to repeat it (though hopefully not in the compulsive way that psychoanalysis theorizes), for indeed, questions about repetition live at the heart of my interest in Madame Bovary. I wonder first of all whether any performance medium can find stylistic equivalents for the novel's representation of repetitive human behavior; my search for such equivalents in successive productions has led me to appropriate and modify extreme styles, such as that of a museum performance I describe below. I wonder as well whether a performance's exact quotation of a source text constitutes a repetition of that text; among the lessons learned from a 1991 film adapation, much admired for its fidelity, was the realization that interpretive gaps inevitably open between an appropriated literary text and the competing signs of the new text that performs it. Finally I wonder whether an adaptation constitutes a repetition of any sort. From the example of my own work, I argue that adaptation is neither a repetition nor a neat, one-time-only transformation of a single source, but an ongoing and broadly comprehensive activity. The process of adaptation provides a gathering place for multiple sources and influences, and a progression of fresh contexts for creative reinvention. In saying this, I align myself with a growing body of recent theory about adaptation.


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